Saturday, September 13, 2014

Heartbreak for Gonzaga in near upset of Washington State

Gonzaga nearly ended Washington State's unbeaten record against the Bulldogs | Photos: Gerald Barnhart
Facing one of the best opponents they may see all season, the Gonzaga women took Washington State nearly the distance Friday, taking a surprising initial lead and holding on to force overtime before falling 2-1 to the unbeaten Cougars, who rallied on a pair of finished crosses by Jocelyn Jeffers and Kailiana Johnson.

Brittany Doan put the hosts in front in the 17th minute, but it was the Bulldogs as a whole showing no fear against a defensive unit that had allowed just one goal in its five previous non-conference games, including two scoreless draws against ranked opponents. The Zags came out punching from the opening whistle and nearly scored on a number of occasions in the first half as they gave the Cougar defense a lot of fits in the early going.

"That was positive, because I think the trend that we had been seeing previously was giving up some early goals. So, I was very proud of them to not give up an early goal, and certainly score the first one," Gonzaga coach Amy Edwards said of the early chances." I think our growth over the past week has been very, very positive. [WSU's defense] haven't been giving up much, and I felt like we did a pretty solid job. I thought we had chances to win it."

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The first big chance came just three minutes into the game when Heather Johnson intercepted the ball as the Cougars were coming out of the back and quickly found Karley Baggerly streaking up the middle slightly to her left. Baggerly took the ball inside the box, but her effort from about 16 yards was denied by a diving Gurveen Clair just beyond the penalty spot. The rebound slightly back out to the right fell to Mikayla Anderson, but her shot from 12 yards was blocked at the edge of the six by defender Susie White. That ricochet popped up and came down back on the left side of the six where Cassie Geerdts came in only to see it go high as she rushed the shot on the bouncer with a defender charging in.

"It's not about the dramatic, its not about jumping over barrels or seeing how high she can fly," Washington State head coach Steve Nugent said of Clair's positioning making difficult stops look easy. "At the end of the day her feet are perfect, her positional play is good. And I think because she is so into the game, so interactive vocally with all of the players on our team, she's always on. She's always switched on in every game that we play; it's hard to beat her."

It was a back-and-forth half, though, with the Cougars also creating plenty of drama at the other end.

Four minutes later a mistake from goalkeeper Christie Tombari on a ball from the end line at the corner of the area went right to Cara Wegner, who turned with the ball and quickly sent it to goal from about 16 yards up the edge of the area. The ball appeared headed off the post but Cricket Harber made a great run defensively to get to the ball just as it reached the post for insurance.

In the 10th minute WSU defender Jordan Branch rifled a shot from about 40 yards that was just outside the upper left corner.

The Bulldogs took the lead, though, in the 17th minute when Katey Pennington lofted a ball from about 45 yards out on the right to the left side of the area where Doan brought the it down off her chest and beat Clair to the bouncing ball at the edge of the six for the opener.

"I'd like to have that scenario back from the first half. That's something that we pride ourselves on - reading service and defending well with our back four - and we just got caught," Nugent said. "Credit to Gonzaga, finding some free space to get into and then the girl buried it."

The goal marked only the second time the Zags have scored against Washington State in the last five meetings, the previous coming three years ago in another 2-1 overtime decision in which Gonzaga also got out in front first at home.

Just like that game, Jeffers provided the equalizer. Branch took the ball all the way into the corner, practically reaching the corner arc, before unleashing a cross that found Jeffers just inside the penalty spot, where she headed it inside the near right post out of Tombari's diving reach in the 23rd minute.  

The two sides continued to go at one another, but finished the half even. The second half, though, was another story as the Cougars showed their dominance, maintaining the majority of possession in the offensive end.

It looked like the visitors had the lead seven minutes in when Kourtney Guetlein took a long ball down deep into the right flank and crossed it into the area. The ball dropped to Wegner, who put her one-time effort off the crossbar from about eight yards.

"From a shot perspective, [Guetlein] was dynamic in the first half getting in and she squared about a half a dozen balls into the box that we just didn't get on the end of in the first half," Nugent said of his striker.

"In the second half she was just as dominant. She's very good one-v-one, and teams are gonna have to make some adjustments to provide some more cover for her. Then its gonna open up some things for us too as a team, and she's gonna have to make some adjustments to her game too as well. I think for today we are very happy with the minutes she has played; they are increasing day by day."

Eight minutes later a Beau Bremer shot from 17 yards out slightly from the left was headed to the far post, but was parried wide by an outstretched Tombari, who made a number of nice saves in the second half and snared a couple dangerous crosses.

Despite WSU dominating the period 11-5 in shots, the Zags did find a few looks at the other end, including a pair of chances in one possession in the 74th minute.

Just three minutes later, it was another defender to the rescue for the Bulldogs as Aliyah Miller made a fantastic goal-line stop. Bremer beat Tombari to the ball in the left hand portion of the area, allowing her to lift it up over the keeper. Miller, however, got there just in time to body the ball down at the goal line to preserve the stalemate.

Washington State's Mesa Owsley put a nice shot toward goal with 10 minutes left from the top of the area only to see it sail just over the far upper left corner and the Zags final chance in the 84th was put right at Clair for her final stop of five on the day. Tombari's final save of six was made moments later at the other end. Branch sent a ball from the right corner to Bremer inside the upper right corner of the area, but her shot from about 18 yards was parried wide by the diving keeper, sending the match to overtime.

"They are also a tough team to deal with on the attack, and I think we handled them pretty well... but giving up that many corners is kinda tough to keep having to defend those set pieces when they've got some pretty good attackers in the air," Edwards said. "And their game plan was to try to score off of a cross and they were able to finish that last one."

With 20 minutes remaining to post just their second-ever positive result against the Cougars (21-0-1 all-time versus Gonzaga), the Bulldogs were stunned just over a minute into golden goal extra time.

The Cougars sent the ball up the middle to Jeffers, who quickly dished it out left to Guetlein to set up the scoring opportunity. Guetlein continued the run deep just inside the area before crossing it into the center of the box where Johnson one-timed it past Tombari from about 10 yards out.

"For me, getting through the 90 minutes was very positive. Heartbreaking, because we wanted to try and get through this and either get a result with a win or get a tie out of it," Edwards said of the quick winner. "I'm still pretty proud of the growth from our team from last week, the last two weeks. In my opinion, this is the best team we have played up to this point and I feel like we've matched them up pretty well. I think it's gonna set us up pretty well for the start of conference play in a few weeks."

The match was the third overtime contest for Washington State, the first two finishing in scoreless draws on the road against 17th ranked Brigham Young and 11th ranked Pepperdine (at Hawaii), and the second come-from-behind result.

"This one was a little bit more dramatic than what we faced in Hawaii," Nugent said. "I thought the second half we pounded them; we created chance after chance after chance. Their goalkeeper was phenomenal, and we let a couple chances, I think, go begging a little bit. In the end we got the result. This is a tough place to play; Gonzaga's a good team. They protect their home turf very, very well and this is a good win for us."

Washington State, 4-0-2 now, returns to Pullman and will take the 'crosstown' trip across the border to Moscow Sunday to face Idaho.

"Obviously, we have one more non-conference game left. Our goal was to be undefeated in the non-conference and we are well on our way there," Nugent said about the upcoming slate for the Cougars. "We have one more result left against Idaho on Sunday. We have to go back and get our legs back again, and then we've got some time off before we have to go to Oregon State.

"Corvalis is another tough place to play. The thing about the PAC-12 is every day you gotta to be on. Every game you gotta be on, you gotta be ready to play and switched on in every facet of the game, offensively and defensively.

"We feel like our non-conference schedule has given us the chance to pressure us into a lot of different situations. You saw today what its like to have to come back. We saw it against Hawaii on Sunday to have to come back. We've seen what it's been like to be up on teams; we've seen what its like to have a lot of the ball and win; and we've seen what it's like to have not a lot of the ball and win. So, we've got a lot of different scenarios under our belt early on in the year. The teams that we have played have put a lot of pressure on us offensively and defensively, so I think we are in a really good spot right now."

The team's unbeaten record through six games marks the program's two best starts consecutively since it began in 1989, going 7-0-3 to kick off their campaign last year under Keidane McAlpine, who departed for USC after the season. This year's slate, however, presented arguably a much more difficult mix of teams and a lot more travel for Nugent, who took over the program in February after three seasons with UNC-Greensboro.

"It's gone great," Nugent said of his start with the Cougars. "I've told a lot of different people the biggest difference for me has been the senior leadership. It's been the players that have been here and understand the culture, that understand how we train and how we play; and what Washington State soccer is all about. So, because they have been so interactive with me, its made my transition that much easier. With a staff like John (Harvey), Sandy (Davison) and Alex (Schisel) - the people that are committed - when you talk about the support staff at Washington State, it's hard not to succeed."

Gonzaga, meanwhile, has three more non-conference games remaining, all away from home. They trek to Boise State Monday and are in Texas next weekend to play North Texas and Southern Methodist.